Tea ceremonies and religious freedom

A case involving a religious tea ceremony argued before the Supreme Court last week has more to it than meets the eye. By deciding whether the government can prevent US members of a Brazilian sect from using hallucinogenic tea in its rituals, the court will make a powerful statement about how seriously the United States regards religious freedom in the 21st century.

Congress, concerned about a trend toward government infringement on religious practice, passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. It requires the federal government to show a "compelling interest" before putting any substantial burden on the free practice of religion. Now the court will decide whether that law has any real teeth to it.

The case involves O Centro Espírita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV), a church whose 130 or so members in the US use a sacramental tea called hoasca, which contains a hallucinogenic substance (dimethyltryptamine or DMT) extracted from Brazilian plants.

The Bush administration argues that since DMT is an illegal controlled substance, the UDV must cease importing and using it. It also argues that DMT is banned under a 1971 international drug treaty signed by the US and that allowing its use by the UDV will lead to DMT abuse.

The church and its supporters say the government has no compelling reason to intervene. The 1971 treaty allows countries to make religious exceptions. What's more, the drinking of the tea in a ceremony about once a month is tightly controlled, and UDV members consider its use outside the ceremony to be sacrilegious. Thus, they say, there is no "slippery slope" toward wide abuse.

The government already allows a native American church to use a hallucinogenic extract from peyote, a cactus. If it can protect 200,000 peyote users, why not 130 tea drinkers? The tea has no known harmful effects, certainly no more than currently accepted religious practices such as drinking alcoholic beverages, fasting, or circumcision.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case next year. While we don't agree that drug use opens the path to spiritual enlightenment, respecting the rights of this religious minority protects those of others. And, as Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out, should conditions change to widespread abuse, the issue could be revisited.

A broad array of religious and civil liberties groups filed briefs in support of the UDV, including the Baptist Joint Committee; the National Association of Evangelicals; the Presbyterian Church; The First Church of Christ, Scientist (publisher of this newspaper); and Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh groups.

What these organizations understand is that a ruling against the UDV would render RFRA essentially meaningless. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the part of RFRA that related to state governments. A decision against UDV would hollow out the rest of the law by setting a low bar for government interference.

Freedom to talk about religion is important. But it means little without freedom to live in accord with one's best understanding.

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